Development Planning? Action Planning? Make It Growth Planning

Whether you’re an executive coach, HR leader, or manager, I want to convince you to ditch development and action plans—both the terms and some of the common practices that accompany them. If we want real progress, real growth, and sustained behavioral change, we can do better.

Why The Words We Use Matter

Let’s start with the terms. What’s in a word? Well, in truth, a lot. Language not only reflects our sense of reality, but significantly shapes it, as has been demonstrated in a long line of studies in the social and cognitive sciences. For example, research confirms that the term “feedback” causes anxiety-producing threat responses for both those delivering and receiving it. Physiologically, the word triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which generates a near instantaneous complex of physiological responses that are popularly known as the “fight, flight or freeze response.” Blood begins flowing toward the body’s large muscles in preparation for combating or fleeing a perceived “attack.” Our brain functioning immediately adjusts. In large part, the brain shuts down higher order executive functioning, throwing us into high alert and narrowing our focus. Our thinking becomes limited and rigid, the exact opposite frame of mind needed to truly take in information, reflect on its meaning, and be in position to do something productive or adaptive with it.

No wonder Microsoft has recently done away with the word “feedback” entirely, replacing it with a system called “Perspectives” that encourages employees to solicit opinions from their peers in a structured way. Deloitte, GE, Gap International, and other organizations that have recently overhauled their traditional performance management systems have also deliberately adopted fresh, alternative, less intimidating words to replace “feedback.” Instead, managers and peers may offer “input,” “insights,” “observations,” or “considerations” to the other person. Coworkers still must take care in delivering performance news, but the simple change of term, one with less judgment, in most instances increases the receptivity, and therefore the value, of the exchange.

Does the term “development plan” have the triggering effect that “feedback” does? No, but I would argue that it’s accumulating negative connotations over time. Unfortunately, too many managers and their employees equate “development plan” with “corrective plan,” with measures imposed on an individual whose performance is subpar. Seen through this deficit mindset, the development plan is about fixing something or about providing something that is lacking. It becomes synonymous with an HR-documented IDP.

While it’s a welcome sign that many organizations are proclaiming the value of a learning organization where “every employee should have a development plan,” this only makes it more important for us to be thoughtful about the terms we use. Today’s organizations have a great opportunity to pursue that admirable goal with fresh language for the development process that avoids potential baggage.

What about “action plan?” While it doesn’t appear to have negative baggage, my fellow MDA executive coaches and I have moved away from this term as well. Why? Because we believe the development journey that we are on with the leaders we coach is deeper work. It deserves to be called something more than another “action plan,” one of many leaders are executing in their daily work.

We may well have an action plan for cleaning and organizing our garage this weekend. It’s a chore, a task. We are less likely to create an action plan for our gardening. Gardening takes deliberate work, for sure. But the growing, the tending, the strengthening happen with equal parts timely action, adaptive responses over time, and plenty of opportunity for observation and reflection. It’s a process, not a check list. Similarly, development is more than another work task with an action plan of check boxes. Action comes through the more deliberate, deep work of assessment, introspection, guided reflection, dialogue, insight formation, and safe practice. New perspectives, new beliefs, new mindsets may need to emerge before right actions are taken.

Growth Planning Triggers Internal Motivation

The term “growth planning” better signals the deep, organic, transformative work that coaching enables. The word “growth” and the term “growth plan” have decidedly positive connotations. Growth planning offers us and our employees or those we coach a fresh way to see and embrace the personal work of enhancing their skills, knowledge, performance, and leadership capabilities. Growth is about stretching, expanding, extending, enhancing, becoming more of, growing upward, and reaching our full potential.

As we practice it, growth planning leverages neuroscience and what we know about the conditions the brain needs to facilitate expansive thinking, learning, and growth. It is a discovery process. Specifically, this process enables the leader to make real connections among critical pieces of data and determine the personal significance as it relates to their aspirations, values, beliefs, impact, priorities, and role/organizational expectations. This is complex work, sorting through what matters to my success in the role and what matters most to me. By guiding leaders through deep reflection on their personal leadership journey, the values and principles they wish to intentionally live, and the legacy they hope to leave, we can help them tap the internal motivation required for the important work ahead.

Coaching includes helping someone to identify and adopt new beliefs, behaviors, and habits; stretch their existing capabilities; apply new skills; and take more effective actions. Growth involves significant effort. Neural rewiring requires practice and sustained behavioral change results from repeated application. We find that when we create the right conditions for growth, growth occurs!

Growth planning is also iterative. We know learning happens with successive opportunities to digest information and try new approaches. We build in time to create a simple roadmap, not an elaborate plan. It allows for cycles of learning as the coach and leader collaboratively translate insights into tangible habits and practices.

This approach can be transformative. Its aim is to enhance personal effectiveness and well-being through holistic development. How can it be otherwise, as our neural wiring is not confined to brain regions labeled “Work Self” and “Home Self.” When we bring our whole selves to work, we are more apt to perform to potential. A variety of trends point to a future workplace where it will be less about rigid role expectations and more about a person or persons shaping what needs to be done in increasingly complex environments.

Our practice of holistic growth starts with insight building about what makes a leader tick: What they value, how they operate, what worries them, and what inspires them. We also gather data from colleagues about impact to share back with the leader. We try to create a safe place for a leader to look in the mirror and explore what’s there—to simply take in and reflect on the data presented. Then she is in a position to make intentional choices about who she wants to be and what she needs to do.

In contrast, action planning can look like drive-by coaching. Too often it involves delivering feedback—quantitative and/or qualitative assessment results—that is separated into “strengths” and “opportunities” (the latter term is an example of an earlier generation’s attempt to counter the negative baggage of “weaknesses”). Individuals are asked to quickly size up that feedback, pull together a development or action plan (sometimes in the same session), and then it’s off to the races, hoping they will be able to make often difficult behavioral changes and the organization will see better results.

We can do better than that. We need to do better than that.

Getting Started

Successful coaching takes many forms and involves many choice points. We are suggesting that coaches can improve their effectiveness in two easy-to-implement ways:

  1. Adopt new terms. Words matter. In coaching, our choices can either trigger stress, defensiveness and narrow, deficit thinking, or prime the brain to eagerly embrace expansive, intrinsically motivating work. Use alternative words for “feedback.” Consider replacing “development planning” or “action planning” with “growth planning.” Forego “strengths and weaknesses/opportunities” in favor of “observations” or “themes.”
  2. Invest more time up front. At MDA, we call this the Discovery Phase. It plays out over 1-2 months, and several meetings. Before the leaders we coach create a growth plan, they have fully digested the data, worked through reflective exercises to unearth what will personally motivate their growth work, and have two alignment-building conversations with their managers around insights gleaned and proposed growth focus areas. Effective coaching requires investing more time up front. We need to slow down early in order to speed up later.

Those of us who are passionate about leadership development and coaching know that the nuances of our words and practices matter. It’s our work, happily embraced, to continue to examine and refine our approaches. After all, the stakes are high. Leadership matters—for the holistic well-being of the individuals we coach and for the well-being of the teams, organizations, and communities they serve. We are encouraged that those we coach resonate with a growth plan approach. It allows them to more readily access their internal motivation, achieve deeper insights, establish more sustainable habits and practices, and lead more deliberately with greater authenticity.

Might growth planning work for you and those you support? Do you already employ it in your coaching? Or are there other terms and components of coaching that you are using to refresh, refine, and reinvigorate your work? We would love to hear from you. We also look forward to sharing further about the practice and value of something we call growth networks in a future article.

What’s the Difference Between Development/Action Planning and Growth Planning?

  Development Planning/
Action Planning
Growth Planning
Focus of Attention Work Self Improvement Holistic Development
Input Feedback: Strengths and Weaknesses or Opportunities Observations/Insights/Themes
Process Translate feedback into action plan; action/behavior-focused Deep reflection on and integration of leadership story, aspirations, values, business priorities, and role expectations into growth plan; focuses on mindset shifts, practice opportunities, and reflection opportunities, in cyclical and iterative fashion
Alignment Align to work goals and role expectations Multiple alignment meetings with manager throughout
Ongoing Support Executive coach, manager, and HR Executive coach, manager, HR and self-selected Growth Network of peers
Measurement Executed plan Executed plan, feedback from Growth Network, quarterly Growth Checks



About The Author

Jim Laughlin serves as Senior Vice President of Leadership Development for MDA Leadership and is based in the Boston area. For more than 20 years, Jim has designed and implemented learning and leadership development systems for companies worldwide. He is also a sought-after executive coach with expertise in organizational communications, change and transitions. or LinkedIn